The unlikely business alliance helping to change the world

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New relationships between big corporations and social enterprises are creating powerful social impact, writes Joseph Agoada, a global communication and social intrapreneurship specialist from Ashoka Changemakers.

In the business world, there are clear signs that large corporations and social impact organisations are developing new types of strategic relationship that challenge the traditional concept of corporate social responsibility.

These social impact partnerships, which focus on the bottom line, face pushback and scepticism because they challenge long-held perceptions that a corporation’s relationship with social impact should strictly be limited to charitable giving. However, there is growing evidence that business-focused partnerships between these two unique allies can create sustainable, scalable solutions to take on the world’s toughest problems such as poverty and disease, while meeting core organisational objectives.

What do large corporations stand to gain from partnering with social sector organisations?

Corporations, especially those with tens of thousands of employees, can be slow and lumbering in testing new business models and experimenting with new market opportunities. Social entrepreneurs or intrapreneurs, on the other hand, work extensively on the ground, interacting closely with end users of a product or service. They also have a certain level of freedom and ability to rapidly test ideas. These abilities are pushing corporations to see that social impact organisations offer more than just an opportunity to foster goodwill and brand affinity.

“Social enterprises are agile and innovative by their very nature. These are extremely resourceful organisations with deep subject matter expertise working to speed the pace of social change. By empowering these global problem solvers, we can deliver more effective technology-based solutions to serve disadvantaged people around the globe,” says Peter Tavernise, director of Cisco Corporate Affairs.

“We introduce our Cisco social impact grantees to potential ecosystem support from our customers and business partners where relevant.” In their corporate social responsibility strategy, Cisco has forged a successful shift from a traditional one-way relationship towards one that recognises the value of a mutually beneficial collaboration with its social impact partners. Other companies such as Unilever and Vodafone are demonstrating a similar mindset by exploring business co-creation with nonprofits and social entrepreneurs.

Two-way partnerships

A two-way partnership benefits both the corporation and the social impact organisation; they have more to gain when they leverage their core strengths, skills and abilities. Co-creation opportunities that look beyond donation can be deeply valuable to the social entrepreneur. mPedigree, a social enterprise which has rapidly reduced the sale of counterfeit drugs in West Africa by utilising mobile and web technologies, is a great example. When mPedigree was a startup, its founder Bright Simons struggled with a challenge most small enterprises face; there was little or no awareness about their brand and service. Partnering with a corporation offered a solution to tackle their need for more visibility and reach.

“We have worked very closely with some of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, in multiple countries, leveraging their industrial reach and well-resourced commitment to safer medicines to reach millions of beneficiaries we would never have been able to reach.” says Simons.

“By piggybacking on the massive resource base, highly talented workforce, and global coverage of multinational pharma companies, our pioneering use of mobile short code technology to address the problem of counterfeit medicines translated from a grassroots effort into one of the most effective solutions for a highly intractable problem.”

Emerging technology and markets

The dynamic partnership between large corporations and social innovators is being fuelled, in part, by the convergence of emerging technology and emerging markets. For example, in Silicon Valley, a leading molecular diagnostic hardware manufacturer, Cepheid, has teamed up with a small nonprofit, InSTEDD, to design, develop and scale up a next generation, cloud-connected disease diagnostic. These connected devices provide quicker diagnosis and have the ability to spot disease trends and outbreaks in real time to prevent major epidemics. InSTEDD brings the expertise and understanding of the demand for next generation devices to the partnership. “Through our work in Africa and Southeast Asia we’ve come to understand that having reliable diagnostic data can save lives.” shares Eduardo Jezierski, CEO at InSTEDD. “With the right data we can send training to support clinics in need or make sure that medication and tests are going to where diseases are on the rise.”

For Cepheid, piloting next generation diagnostic communications with InSTEDD in places like South Africa, Vietnam and India makes business sense. “We have the potential to transform the way clinicians deliver and consume healthcare services. A few years from now, it will be unthinkable that anyone, anywhere, waits for days or weeks for test results.” says John Bishop, Cepheid’s Chairman and CEO.

“Disease transmission rates can be curtailed and the treatment more efficiently targeted with proper, accurate diagnostics at the point of care. But their full potential can only be realised with the right design for electronic data transmission. Our partnership with InSTEDD has been critical in that regard.” To date, Cepheid’s devices have captured millions of digital diagnostic test results in a way that is safe, private and designed for scale. Through this collaboration, Cepheid and InSTEDD created a product and system that is resilient. If a health technology can thrive in the challenging environments of Africa and Asia, it can be used to create impact anywhere in the world.

Tackling challenges

It is important to foster co-creation relationships to tackle the most important challenges we face today. A barrier to getting started is the stigma that social impact must be void of all business relevance. To overcome this, there needs to be a meaningful exchange of knowledge between the public and private sector. Open corporate innovation practices such as the Co-Creating a Healthier World Challenge promote partnerships and provide an opportunity for employees to find social entrepreneurs based on their expertise. It is crucial to create spaces for these two groups to meet, interact, network and cultivate partnerships. Gatherings such as the Skoll World Forum and Intrapreneurship Conference are starting to meet this need. As mindsets shift and co-creation opportunities are recognised and seized, these partnerships will become less uncommon, and their full impact will be felt.

Ashoka and Boehringer Ingelheim are actively seeking health innovatorsto co-create solutions for a healthier world. To find out more, and to enter your idea head to www.changemakers.com/makingmorehealth

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Photo credit: Eric Sonstroem from Flickr

This article originally appeared on Ashoka’s Forbes.com channel.

 

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